One of the most basic things you can learn from the pilgrimage is that the idea that some things, actions, and places are sacred and others are not is a false distinction. The pilgrimage combines sacred and secular in such a way that the distinction between the two is broken down, implicitly and explicitly.
Most people do the pilgrimage for religious reasons of one kind or another. For many people, the pilgrimage is done as an act of devotion to Kobo Daishi. For others, it is done to ask for benefits, for themselves or others, living or dead. Still others do it as a quest for enlightenment, or at least what they see as possible progress along that path. All of these are religious ideas, some overtly Buddhist, some more in the line of folk religious belief.
Whatever their specific reason for doing the pilgrimage, nearly all pilgrims see the pilgrimage as a sacred activity. Many take vows. Nearly all resolve to pray, or at least to recite the Heart Sutra and other Buddhist formulas. Most will light incense and candles, ring bells and wear clothing replete with religious symbolism. Many will vow to refrain from anger, alcohol, or sex during the pilgrimage, taking vows to abstain from what they perceive as "worldly activities" that seem to be out of place in the "sacred” realm of the pilgrimage.
Then they embark on a journey lasting days, weeks or months. In the course of the pilgrimage, they get up in the morning, eat meals, talk with other people, bathe, go to the toilet, shop, make phone calls -- in other words, they are presented with a daily routine. It's different from the daily routine of their lives before and after the pilgrimage, but it is, in some ways, remarkably similar. Pilgrim's diaries sometimes read like diaries of any other slice of life. Religious issues, introspection into the depths of the soul, records of prayers and petitions -- these generally take a distant second place to the mundane concerns of eating, sleeping, and getting from place to place.
There's a lesson in this. It's the essential lesson of Vajrayana, the most highly developed form of Buddhism. It's also one of the presumptions of The Eightfold Path, the basic prescription for how to live. The Eightfold Path isn't a presecription of how to perform Buddhist rituals. It's a guide for living. People who wish to achieve enlightenment should practice eight perfections:
The Eightfold Path
Shingon doctrine often refers to a slightly longer but very similar list of Ten Perfections:
The Ten Perfections
Holding to the precepts
Engaging in meditation
Perfection of skillful means,
During the pilgrimage, pilgrims will sometimes attend ceremonies at the temples. The priests usually take this opportunity to remind the pilgrims of these desired behaviors and states of mind. Usually, in Shingon (most, but not all, of the pilgrimage temples are Shingon), this is expressed in the form of Ten Precepts:
The Shingon Precepts
I will not harm life.
I will not steal.
I will not commit adultery.
I will not tell a lie.
I will not exaggerate.
I will not speak abusively.
I will not equivocate.
I will not be greedy.
I will not be hateful.
I will not lose sight of the Truth.
All of these behaviors will lead you to enlightenment. It doesn't matter whether you do them during the pilgrimage, at work, at school, at home, or when going about your life in town. In fact, what matters is not when or where you live this way. What matters is that you do live this way.
The pilgrimage is daily life. The way you live your life during the pilgrimage becomes the way you live your daily life afterwards. Pilgrim's lore is full of stories of miracles of reformed sinners, of people who have changed for the good. I've never yet heard a story of a pilgrim who became worse after doing the pilgrimage. Of course, some people probably have returned from the pilgrimage unchanged or changed for the worse, but they aren't part of pilgrimage lore precisely because the pilgrimage is seen as a positive transforming experience. That's what people expect to happen -- change for the better, one way or another.
Progress is one of the basic themes of the pilgrimage, just as it is a basic element of Shingon thought. Kukai wrote The Ten Levels of the Development of Mind in which he set out a progressive series of states of mind. He said that you could progress through these stages of development, from the unstable goatlike mind all the way to the secret subline mind by following the precepts, practicing the three secrets, and working with a teacher who could lead you along the path.
This idea of progress, progress within and of the mind, is central to ideals of the pilgrimage. Whatever your current level of mind, you can progress to the next level. The emphasis in Shingon teachings is to work with a teacher, studying the teachings and practicing meditation. During the pilgrimage, you may or may not have a teacher, you may or may not practice meditation. But whatever you do, you are likely to pay closer attention to Buddhist teachings than you do in your daily life outside the pilgrimage. The four prefectures of Shikoku island are referred to as dojos, training grounds, in the context of doing the pilgrimage.
My favorite example of this is the practice of not putting your walking stick down when you cross a bridge. This is done in memory of Kukai, who wrote a poem saying that he once had to spend a night under a bridge because nobody in a certain town would give him a place to stay. Pilgrims are told not to put down their walking sticks while crossing bridges, "because Kobo Daishi may be sleeping under the bridge."
Of course, everybody realizes that Kobo Daishi isn't sleeping under bridges. The practice is an exercise in mindfulness, one of the eight perfections of The Eightfold Path. It's also an exercise in compassion. Somebody may be sleeping under that bridge. There are homeless people on Shikoku who do sleep under bridges. But even if nobody is under the bridge you happen to be on, the custom of not putting your walking stick down is training in mindfulness.
Where are you right now?
On a bridge.
You are aware of your location and of the possible consequences of your actions. This is mindfulness.
Everyday life during the pilgrimage is everyday life. Though the pilgrimage is cast in terms of sacred activity, the sacred and the secular are so thoroughly blended that the distinction between the two breaks down. This teaches the lesson that there is no essential difference between the two. As a result, the improved person who has finished the pilgrimage goes back to that other everyday life, ready for further progress.